The Call, Column 72 – “Getting to the Grassroots”: Another Visit to Blackbird Farm

21 05 2017

(May 21, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“Getting to the Grassroots”: Another Visit to Blackbird Farm

Cows grazing on one of the pastures at Blackbird Farm

Making hay, as the sun sets on the farm

If you ever want to talk serious local agricultural strategy, sit down with Ann Marie Bouthillette of Blackbird Farm. She is a tireless advocate for the entire farming community in Rhode Island, starting with her family’s own pasture-based beef- and pork-farm in Smithfield, but reaching even as far as her own competitors. She has her finger on the pulse of the local food movement here and around the country, and you can tell that she is always thinking up some new, creative way to better promote and practice appropriate-scale agriculture. You can probably imagine how thrilled I was for the chance to talk to her again about some exciting things going on at her farm and statewide

Blackbird Farm sits on over 200 acres along Limerock Road in Smithfield. They raise their Black Angus cattle, which you can sometimes see grazing in one of the road-side pastures, on a diet of grass supplemented with non-GMO grains; and their free-ranged American Heritage Berkshire pigs, what Ann Marie calls “the angus of pork”, on a diet of non-GMO feed supplemented with woodland roughage.

Their farm stand is at 660 Douglas Pike (Rt 7), right at the intersection with Limerock Road. This is where the public can purchase frozen cuts of the farm’s beef and pork, along with other agricultural products from around the state. They also sell to local institutions, like Johnson and Whales University and Roger Williams University. Check out their website, at http://blackbirdfarmri.com/, to learn more.

I visited the farm last Thursday afternoon. The warm air and approaching sunset put the farm in a particularly beautiful light, and set an appropriate backdrop for our long conversation about the state of agriculture in Rhode Island.

As we drove and walked through the farm’s 200+ acres, Ann Marie expressed the importance of truly-local animal agriculture. At Blackbird, she explained, the whole cycle takes place right on the farm: their animals are born, weaned, raised, bred, fattened, and ultimately sold right on the farm.

Their operation is a far-cry from a feedlot, where the scaled-up, product-at-the-cheapest-cost-possible business model means that the cattle are bought at an older age, put into confinement, force-fed massive quantities of the cheapest sources of calories possible, pumped with drugs and hormones, and shipped off to be slaughtered and sold God-knows-where.

In talking to Ann Marie, you can tell how carefully she thinks about each step of the process of raising animals, each method and practice that her farm uses. She makes decisions consciously, with the welfare of the animals and her customers in mind, and each one is very deliberate and not simply based on the often-flawed conventional wisdom. Walking through the rolling pastures and wooded areas of Blackbird, I was more than a little reassured that local, appropriate-scale agriculture can give the CAFO business model a run for its money.

Running a business like this is no small task, so make no mistake: Blackbird Farm is truly a family affair. It takes a huge amount of work to raise, feed, care for, move, and sell meat animals, grow and harvest 600+ bales of hay for winter feed, manage the finances and operation of a farm, and market their brand. So while Ann Marie is the public face of the farm, her husband Kevin, their sons Brandon and Troy, their daughter Sam, and their daughter-in-law Sarah all play crucial, laborious roles in the farm’s day-to-day operations and management.

And that is why Ann Marie has become such a tireless advocate for local, small-scale agriculture. By getting the public to think about where their food comes from – fostering public awareness of farmers markets, starting conversations with the farmers whose hands grow and raise their food, and, to borrow her awesome pun, getting their minds down to the grassroots of local agriculture – Ann Marie is confident that we can grow the local agricultural economy and create a sustainable environment for the farmers, their farms, and the animals and plants that inhabit them.

On that note, one of the major reasons for my visit to the farm was to discuss the grand opening of their farmers market this week.

The market will be located at Blackbird’s Farm Stand, 660 Douglas Pike. It will run every Friday, starting this week (May 26th), from 4-7 pm. It is being organized by Eat Drink RI, with the intention of making consumers more aware of local products and giving a boost to Blackbird and other local producers.

There will be at least 6 farms selling in the first week, with plenty more getting on board as the season progresses. Customers will be able to buy a huge range of local products, from the meat, produce, eggs, and dairy, to baked goods, sodas, and honey, to maybe even sea salt. There will be information on local farms and a horse-drawn wagon for the kids. This is a big deal, so make sure you’re there!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 69 – Another Visit to Blue Skys Farm

9 04 2017

(April 9, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Another Visit to Blue Skys Farm

Greens growing in one of Blue Skys high tunnels

Christina, in front of the new high tunnel

“If every person were to volunteer at a small-scale farm just once in their life, they would never complain about the price of food again.” This candid comment was made by one of the most passionate farmers I know, as we sat, deep in conversation, at a table in her farm’s solar-powered CSA building. In the fading light of dusk, as the sun set over one of her soon-to-be-planted fields, she actually forced me to mature in my understanding of small-scale, sustainable agriculture.

I was at Blue Skys Farm in Western Cranston, and I had spent upwards of three hours that afternoon talking to Christina Dedora, the farmer herself, about the trials, successes, and innate difficulties of being a small farmer. If you’ve read my column long enough, you may remember Christina; she and her farm were the subjects of the first edition of my “The Hand That Feeds You” column series, in late summer 2015.

It’s amazing, that Christina and I have already been friends for over two years. In that time, and especially since I wrote that first column about her farm, she has taught me so much about how small-scale, sustainable farming works.

She has been farming in RI now for 11 years, the last seven of them as a full time farmer. Her farm, Blue Skys, is part of the Urban Edge Farm agricultural collaborative, a collection of seven independent farms on land that is owned by the RI DEM and managed by the Southside Community Land Trust. One of the central themes of my last column about Christina’s farm was the underlying collaborative business model between the farmers, a fact which is still very true. Oftentimes, Christina’s table at the farmers market will feature produce grown by other farmers at Urban Edge.

At this point in the year, Blue Skys sells at the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market, at Hope Artiste Village (1005 Main St, Pawtucket), which runs Saturdays 9 am to 1 pm, from November to May. During the summer, from May to October, they sell at the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market. That is at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet (60 Rhodes Place, Cranston), and runs Saturdays 9 am to 12 pm. All of this information and a whole lot more can be found at the farm’s website, https://blueskysfarm.com/.

Christina describes her growing methods as chemical-free. She is not certified organic (I’ve written before about how inaccessible the organic certification can be for small farms), but she uses practices that well surpass the codified organic standards. All of the farms’ water comes almost exclusively from a small pond on the land. They grow their winter produce (along with very warm-season summer crops) in passively-heated, high-tunnel greenhouses, and meticulously manage their land’s soil fertility with organic amendments.

The layout of the farm hasn’t changed too much since that last time I wrote about it. But they are excitedly constructing their third high-tunnel, which was funded by a grant from the NRCS and USDA, and will enable them to hugely increase their production of greens during the winter and tomatoes during the summer. They also finished building their new drying room, which has allowed them to dry the many types of fragrant herbs that they grow on the farm. Christina told me that they have tripled the amount of herbal products being sold, most of which are both culinary and medicinal. There is a lavender-chamomile tea blend that caught my eye at the farmers market last week, which is a good example of the type of cool herbal products they grow, dry, and sell.

Right now, Blue Skys is in the end of their winter growing season. In my view, it’s pretty awesome that they have perfected their winter growing system, to continue growing and selling during the otherwise bleak months of the year. By using the passive-solar-heating properties of a high-tunnel, Christina and the crew are able to support a pretty substantial crop cool-season greens and roots. Right now, the tunnels are full of red and green spinach, chard, Mâche (a French salad green), lettuce, arugula, kale, mustard greens, sorrel, radishes, and even dill.

They carefully select crops that are able to survive mildly low temperatures, but which will flourish in the high-tunnels during winter conditions. Christina explained that she gets very little pest pressure during the winter, spare some cabbage worms and aphids. And because the soil in the high-tunnels doesn’t get directly rained on, sodium salts can accumulate in the soil and cause problems for the crops. For that reason, she amends with gypsum and the same organic fertilizers she uses elsewhere on the farm.

As I write this, the crew is busy seeding their summer crops in two massive greenhouses on the farm. Christina explained that their summer crop selection is pretty steady at this point, and includes beets, carrots, eggplants, cucumbers, cabbages, tomatoes, pole beans, potatoes (specifically, a nice purple-fleshed variety), along with many different types of flowers and herbs, all in many varieties.

This brings us to one of the main reasons I wanted to write this column: Blue Skys Farm’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. The way this program works is that the consumer pays for a “share” early in the season and then gets a box of vegetables (or other type of share) each week for a predetermined span of time. This system puts capital in the farmer’s hands early in the season, when it is needed most, and in return, the consumer gets 10-15% more produce for their money.

Blue Skys offers a full share (for 3-4 people) and a half share (for 1-2 people) of their vegetables, which span 20 weeks and work out to $40 per week for the full share, and $20 per week for the half share. They also offer herbal tea and flowers in their own CSA structures. In addition, eggs from Pak Express Farm and fruit from Barden Orchard can be bought as CSA shares. The program runs from June 9 through October 20, and the shares can be picked up either at the farm in Cranston, or at the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market. All of this information is available at https://blueskysfarm.com/csa/, and you can also sign up right on that page.

Christina described that there are greens and lettuce in the box pretty much every week, and otherwise, it is filled with crops that are in season at the time (i.e. tomatoes and cucumbers starting in July). Certain crops are constant, while others are only available some weeks or at certain times of the summer, and she expects that there will usually be five to six different types of vegetable in the box in any given week. I already signed up for a share, and I urge you to as well!

Unlike the last time I toured the farm, when I viewed it through the rose-colored glasses of the pastoral idyll, our discussion was much deeper and more serious last week. Christina described some of the difficulties of being a small farmer: the crop losses, the food politics, the stagnation in the growth of the local customer base, and the complexity inherent in simultaneously growing food and also running a food distribution business. Christina works long days, often seven days a week; and in her words, and the words of every farmer whom I have talked to or whose work I have read, she isn’t going to get rich doing this.

And that’s what I meant earlier, when I said that my long conversation with her forced me to mature in my understanding of small-scale agriculture. While it’s been a long time since I legitimately thought of agriculture as peaceful, serene, and easy, I still do fall into the trap (and I’m sure you see it in many of my columns) of idealizing the life of a small farmer.

It definitely isn’t the pastoral idyll; it isn’t a series of lazy summer days, sitting out in a field, shucking peas with grandma. That lifestyle might have been common at some time in history, and may be achievable again, if we are willing to place a higher value on sustainable agricultural production than we currently do. But it doesn’t describe agriculture today.

Blue Skys farm, like many other small farms, is in no small part a labor of love. It is very hard work, and it is Christina’s livelihood. But it’s more than that. Agriculture is also her vocation, her way of using her unique skills and knowledge and time to improve the world.

Near the end of our conversation, I asked Christina what she wished she could tell people about her farm, herself, and local agriculture. Rather than any sort of marketing plug for Blue Skys, she had one simple request: “I want the world to eat more vegetables.” She believes that everyone would benefit by shopping at the farmers market, having access to fresh, seasonal, local produce every week. She wants people to eat more fresh vegetables and less processed food, and to appreciate the love that farmers put into their craft. She has high hopes for the future of small-scale, sustainable agriculture in Rhode Island and the rest of the world, and she’s doing her part to bring us there.

I concur. Being a regular at Rhode Island’s local farmers markets, eating produce grown in the local foodshed and making it a big part of my diet, has changed me. I urge you to sign up for Blue Skys’ CSA program and visit them at the farmers market. You can find more information about all of this at http://www.farmfreshri.org/ and https://blueskysfarm.com/.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 67 – “Adventurous Agrarians: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel”

12 03 2017

(March 12, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“Adventurous Agrarians”: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel

 

What values do you use to drive your decision-making? Do you have an overarching worldview – a religion, environmental ethic, scientific mindset, political philosophy, or even a business-based set of ideals – that influences you on a daily basis? And maybe, do you have more than just one, and have to weigh them against each other when making decisions?
Today’s column is going to be a little different than normal. Rather than exploring an environmental or agricultural topic, we’re going to delve into two of the basic worldviews that help me, personally, to make decisions; worldviews that, I believe, many of my fellow urban farmers are also guided by. These philosophies exist simultaneously in my mind and, at different times, help to guide my decisions. But they don’t always appear to be consistent with each other…and today, I want us to figure out how we might make them so.
On the one hand, I would guess that almost every urban farmer, myself happily included, is an agrarian. We love the small-scale and local production model, the pastoral idyll, and distinct but closely-related philosophies like minimalism and conscious consumption. This is a mindset of slow-living, of love and intimate knowledge of your ecological place and your home, and the faith that the local landscape is capable of providing us with everything our bodies and minds and souls need. This is the philosophy of Wendell Berry, and of anyone who defines themselves as “a homesteader”.
But on the other hand, based in my personal experience, I think a lot of us possess that “jolly wanderer” type of mindset as well. That zest-for-life, which makes us want to travel the world and see far off places and people. The desire for new, varied experiences and adventures, and a love for nature and the environment that makes us want to soak in as much of this pale blue dot as we can, while we’re still here. Millennials sort of universally share this mindset, but so does anyone who finds value even in just being outdoors.
It is my style to constantly challenge my own beliefs, mostly in my mind, in order to test their validity. I figure that any logical person probably does the same. And with that, comes the desire to have a self-consistent set of beliefs and worldviews so I can never rightfully be called a hypocrite.
At first glance, these two worldviews – the “agrarian” and the “traveler” – are diametrically opposed; they are inconsistent, and so far, it has been kind of hard for me to accept their shared residence in my mind. I feel like many of you have the same problem. Which is why I am asking today’s question: how do we reconcile these seemingly competing worldviews? Are the world-traveler and the student of Wendell Berry really at odds, or might they be two sides of the same coin?
Having not yet explored either philosophy deeply enough, this apparent inconsistency is made obvious by my sleeping pattern – or lack thereof. Depending on my mood any given day, I either go to bed and wake up nice and early, because “that’s what a farmer would do, since there are cows to be milked and morning chores to do” (I do not have cows), or I insist to my friends that we stay out late and paint the town red, because we have to live life to the fullest. You can’t get much more contradictory than that.
Again, with a very basic understanding of both philosophies, there are some noticeable incompatibilities: agrarianism is a very community-based, selfless ideal, while the adventurer is more individualistic; agrarianism is associated with certain conservative principles, and is common amongst rural people, while adventurism, often with progressivism and the big city; the adventurer seems willing to use resources in order to gain experiences, while agrarianism concerns itself more with resource conservation; the agrarian extols the virtues of making roots and long-term connections to the local place, while the adventurer sees the whole world as home.
Right now, you are probably thinking: how can one person passionately hold both of these views? After writing that list, I’ll admit I’m thinking the same thing. But I have a 500 word outline of reasons why we can, so let’s see if we can’t answer that question together.
First off, I’ll say that I don’t think these two outlooks come from the same place in our minds or souls. I have come to believe that they were engrained into our DNA – and even, if we look hard enough, some ancient elements of our species’ culture – by our own evolutionary history on Earth.
We were hunter-gatherers for 2.6 million years prior to the start of agriculture: we lived in nature; we spent much of our day in recreation and play; our tribal communities, though small, were probably stronger than they have been since; and we moved around a lot, experiencing and reveling in the great big world around us. It’s funny, how that sounds a lot like the jolly traveler mindset put into perfect practice.
And then, we started agriculture 10 or 15 thousand years ago. Though not our best decision, it brought with it a slew of new experiences. For the first time, we settled down; we tied the idea of community not only to our tribe of people, but to a geographical location, a place; we as agriculturalists traded our ancestors’ lifelong quest for new, wild sources of food, water, energy, and shelter, for the deliberate production of our own (and the smart ones put up emergency stores and extracted at sustainable rates); we developed a cultural connection to the animals, plants, and geographic character of the lands we called home. That agrarian mindset is the same that exists, to this day, in the writings of people like Wendell Berry.
I think it’d be straightforward to make the argument that our time spent as hunter-gatherers encoded the traveler ethic into our DNA, while our time as agriculturalists left us with a penchant for agrarianism. And this might be exactly why the two modern philosophies don’t seem obviously consistent – they are two distinct elements of our genetics, our psychology, and our culture. But just because they come from our adaptations to different lifestyles, doesn’t necessarily make them inconsistent.
To embrace agrarianism, or adventurism, or both, is to reject the worst elements of modern, Western, industrial life. Both of these worldviews reject the idea that a day in meaningful life is to wake up, go to the gym, go to work, come home, watch TV, and sleep. In fact, both worldviews are based in the idea of living a meaningful, fulfilling life!
They even prescribe similar definitions of what “a meaningful life” entails. Both reject the obsession with passive consumption and material goods that defines modern, western life. They embrace the vivacious elements of our species’ behavior – creation, recreation, love and kinship, appreciation of the natural world, and love of good food; and both worldviews value experiences over things, in full recognition of the fact that new experiences literally create more vivid imprints on our memories than repetitive ones. (Don’t believe me? Recall your last vacation, or camping trip, or the last time you spent time in your garden. Good, now tell me what you did at work on the Tuesday following that experience, or what you ate for dinner the following Thursday. See what I mean?).
Where agrarianism makes you hyper-focused on the ebbs and flows of your chosen place – the first sign of robins in the spring, the last warm day of summer, and the flowering of your favorite fruit tree are the “new experiences” that drive your life – the traveler ethic lets you connect to a variety of places like this, with less intimacy but more variety than agrarianism.
Both philosophies are based in an appreciation of nature, and also of the best aspects of humanity. As a traveler, you are exploring the world, going to see the natural wonders and the good, wholesome things that can be produced by human society. And the same is true of agrarianism, though you lean more towards being a producer and protector and preserver of those things.
My immediate motivation to write this column was actually that I will be leaving on a trip to Italy next week, after writing to you on the real and present dangers of climate change.
Now, I will be purchasing carbon offset credits for this and all future flights (which effectively negate my portion of the flight’s environmental impact). But still, I was bothered by the apparent inconsistency in being an agrarian soul who has recently found a love for travel and adventure. This column has given me a lot of peace in that regard. I’d love for you to email me with your thoughts, so see if it did the same for you.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 62 – “What’s Here That’s Worth Saving?”

15 01 2017

(January 1, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“What’s Here That’s Worth Saving?”

Earlier in the fall, I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by my biggest icon, Wendell Berry, along with his daughter Mary Berry and his friend and colleague Wes Jackson. It was put on by the Schumacher Center for New Economics together with the Berry Center and the Land Institute, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA. The conversation was originally supposed to focus on their concept of a sustainable, 50-year Farm Bill, but quickly broadened to the long list of topics about which the three panelists – and the entire audience – are passionate. I want to give you some highlights from the talk.

As you probably know from reading this column, Wendell Berry is a writer and poet, environmental activist, philosopher, and farmer in Kentucky. He has written dozens of books of essays, advocating for true, long-term sustainability and agrarianism, and critiquing various aspects of human society as it relates to the environment, the poor, the Divine, and our future, and even more books of poetry and fiction about the agrarian lifestyle.

Wes Jackson is a geneticist and botanist, and a writer, and is a close friend of Berry’s. He is the founder and head of the Land Institute in Kansas, an organization dedicated to the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, in part through the development of perennials. Like Berry, he is an avid environmental activist, and writes about the principle of ecological context, and the future of sustainable agriculture.

Mary Berry is Wendell’s daughter, and the Founder and Executive Director of the Berry Center in Kentucky. In their own words, the organization is “established for the purpose of bringing focus, knowledge and cohesiveness to the work of changing our ruinous industrial agriculture system into a system and culture that uses nature as the standard, accepts no permanent damage to the ecosphere, and takes into consideration human health in local communities.” She was the moderator of the discussion.

Before the talk even began, I had the pleasure of meeting Diana Rodgers. In her own words, she is a “real-food nutritionist” and dietician, a writer, and a sustainability advocate, and a leader in the Paleo movement; she also hosts the Sustainable Dish Podcast. Her work has been a pretty big part of my own health and sustainability journey, so it was awesome to be able to talk with her before and after the event about the themes in Berry’s and Jackson’s work, and how they relate to on-the-ground sustainable agricultural practices and the guiding principles of the Paleo Diet. I would definitely recommend checking out her website, http://sustainabledish.com/.

The talk lasted for a little over an hour, and was followed by an hour of Q&A. The topics of discussion ranged pretty widely, but focused on the intersection between human health, equitable and inclusive economics, environmental sustainability, and agriculture. You can watch the entire talk on the Schumacher Center’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxnEDVyCjyY&feature=youtu.be), but I’ll highlight and explore some of the points that really stood out to me here.

Wendell Berry prefaced the discussion with a question, to be asked when considering any place: “What’s here that’s worth saving?” This may not seem like much, but it speaks to an element of both Berry’s and Jackson’s philosophies. The idea goes that an intimate understanding of the ecological and sociological characteristics of a place is the basis upon which decisions should be made in regards to the place – about what plants, animals, fuels, and fiber to farm, how to best help the people, and how the place should fit into its wider context.

A little later, Berry gave a figurative warning about the irreversibility of pollution and environmental damage, that “in nature, there’s no court of appeals. So what’s gone down the river is gone.” When, for the sake of unlimited economic growth, we release toxic pollutants into the environment, churn out excessive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, create poverty and sociological damage, and literally expose the topsoil and allow it to runoff into waterways, we are harming the Earth and the people in ways that cannot be directly undone. Effective environmental cleanup aside, the best solution we have in most cases, is to stop doing the bad thing! Stop using fossil fuels, stop dumping pollutants into rivers, stop farming unsustainably. Nature will fix it in her time, but the repairing process may not be that comfortable for the species that caused the damage in the first place.

At one point, Wes Jackson led the discussion to one of my most sought-after topics. Phrased perfectly, he said that, “starting 10,000 years ago with the beginning of agriculture, we became a species out of context.” This powerful idea can be used as a motivator for studying, in Sir Albert Howard words, “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject”. The start of agriculture, and with it human civilization, was the indirect source of most of the problems we face today. It was the cause of a great many good things, too – science, art, medicine, philosophy – so we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But Jackson’s implication is that that new way of interacting with our world, brought on by our shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture, allowed us to develop biologically, economically, and sociologically independent from the checks and balances provided by nature.

War, poverty, ignorance and hatred, nationalism, environmental degradation, our declining health as a species; these are all the result of our conventional agricultural outlook, and the economics that have arisen from it. Our transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic humans 10,000 years ago put us out of a Natural context, turning us from wild beings to industrial objects.

Our world is in trouble. Our species is in trouble. That much is obvious. But this talk gave me some hope that solutions might be found. Concern for the environment, for poverty, and for agricultural sustainability have grown in recent years, thanks in no small part to the work being done by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.

As we transition into the year 2017, we have to work harder than ever to solve the problems that we have caused. I have faith that solutions will be found, though; and I think the first place to check is the pages of their books.

I wish you all a happy, healthy, sustainable Near Year!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 59 – A Thanksgiving Message

15 01 2017

(November 20, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Thanksgiving Message

           Almost as quickly as it began, the Halloween season is over. I hope you all had a spooky, fun-filled Halloween, and a very agricultural beginning of the autumn.

But the end of October means the start of another great time of year, especially in New England. No, I’m not talking about Christmas, despite the decorations, ads, and artificially-flavored coffees that took over the world at midnight on November 1st. I’m talking, of course, about Thanksgiving!

This holiday was originally established to commemorate the annual harvest celebration observed by the European settlers and Native Americans, an example of mutually-beneficial cooperation in an otherwise strained relationship. The Americans helped the European settlers to subsist off the unfamiliar North American terrain, and many Europeans worked towards harmony and peaceful coexistence with the natives.

Today, Thanksgiving has become a time where we slow down our lives, putting aside the stressors and distractions that define the Standard American Lifestyle, in favor of good, wholesome food, cooked and enjoyed with loved ones. To those of us with strong religious faith, this is a time to thank God for the food we enjoy, the wonderful Creation that is capable of providing for us all, and for the people and creatures and things and vocations which give our lives meaning.

And to us environmentally- and historically-conscious urban farmers, Thanksgiving means so much more. It is truly a celebration of the harvest, of the hard work performed by our ancestors, our families, our farmers, our animals, our Earth, and our own hands, in order to nourish and grow.

It is also a time of year when we can loudly put our beliefs into practice, celebrating with food grown, raised, and harvested according to our high standards; food that is biologically-appropriate for our bodies, which nourishes them rather than tearing them down.

Today, I want to share with you some suggestions that I’ve found helpful, to make a Thanksgiving worthy of an urban farmer.

Buy local, organic, and sustainable. Good, wholesome food is at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday, and our buying habits, on this of all days, drive the food production market. When consumers buy turkeys that cost $1 per pound, the food industry and government perceive market signals that the unethical factory farming, expensive grain subsidies, and environmental destruction that keeps the price that low are acceptable; when consumers buy cranberries produced God-knows-where, the market hears that locally-produced cranberries aren’t a priority.

All of the fixings for a Thanksgiving table can be bought in our local foodshed. There are a couple of great turkey farms in this area (our turkey is coming from Baffoni’s in Johnston), but I would suggest calling in order to reserve a turkey ASAP. New England is also renowned for our cranberry bogs, and Fairland Farms offers their organic cranberries at the Pawtucket Winter Farmers Market. The farmers market is a great place to get pretty much every ingredient you need for thanksgiving – vegetables of all sorts, sweet corn, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, and even the dairy and other secondary ingredients to your favorite recipes. Much of this produce is organic or sustainably produced, and all of it is local.

Eat healthy foods, and include lots of color. The Standard American Diet tends to be rather tan-white in color, made of mostly of grains, dairy, sugars, and lean meats. That is a recipe for a health disaster. You want to be eating poultry with a lot more dark meat, which indicates a healthier bird that lived a happier life. Minimize the nutritionally-devoid grains, sugars, and over-processed dairy, and instead focus on nutrient-dense proteins and fats (from meat), loads of colorful vegetables and moderate amounts of fruits, and some starchy vegetables for variety.

A truly healthy Thanksgiving (like any meal) retains the best-tasting, healthiest foods – the turkey (especially the skin and dark meat!), the sweet potatoes, the cranberries, and the pumpkins and winter squash, as well as Brussels sprouts, green beans, and the like – and cuts out the cheap filler carbohydrates. Splurge on a non-CAFO turkey and some organic Brussels sprouts at the farmers market, and leave the bread on the shelf.

Here’s one suggestion I’ve recently discovered: instead of traditional pumpkin pie in a flour crust, sweeten the filling with maple syrup and make a much healthier coconut- or almond-flour crust, or skip the crust altogether and bake it in individual custard cups.

Cook from scratch. There are so many reasons why you should cook things from scratch, this should be a given. Any food is going to be healthier if it was made in your kitchen, from real ingredients, rather than in a factory. But what’s more, cooking foods from scratch lets you choose the quality and types of ingredients that go into them. If you must have them, make your pie crusts with real butter, and leave the Crisco in the 1950s where it belongs. Cook with butter and olive oil and coconut oil, make stuffing from real chestnuts, celery, and turkey drippings, roast and puree actual pumpkins to make pie, and make lower-sugar cranberry jelly from scratch (talk about a fun experience!). It’s all a lot easier than it seems, costs less, and makes a better dish. Please email me if you’d like any specific recipes or tips.

Produce no waste. A big meal means a lot of leftovers; and with lots of extra foods, it becomes easy for perfectly good stuff to end up going to waste. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but don’t throw any leftovers away. Not on Thanksgiving, not on Christmas, not on May 3rd, not on any day that ends in a ‘y’. Not ever.

It’s easy to find ways to make use of leftover food. Beyond the obvious “eating it as is over the next few days”, my family has a tradition of “after-Thanksgiving sandwiches”. You can also use the turkey bones to make soup and, of course, give any inedible vegetable scraps to the chickens or compost pile. Also, try to cook in reusable pie tins and turkey pans and the like, rather than those disposable aluminum ones.

Be thankful! As I said, Thanksgiving is a time to be conscious about the systems and beings that make our lives comfortable and give them meaning. Animals’ and plants’ lives are sacrificed to provide our bodies with nourishment. Farmers toil under the hot sun to grow quality food for our tables. The resilient, intricate, divine ecosystem provides for every living creature, and is capable of doing so forever. And the love of our friends, family, and community makes it all worth it. These are the things to be thankful for, the reasons for this great holiday, the gifts that we should consider when saying Grace.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 57 – ‘Fall’ In Love with Local Agriculture

13 11 2016

(October 9, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

‘Fall’ In Love with Local Agriculture

Wasn’t it 80 degrees one day last week? And now, as if by magic, it seems like fall has been thrust upon us. I’ve definitely said this before, but the fall is my favorite time of year. It is, of course, harvest time, when the plants vigorously bear their fruits as the threat of an early frost bears down upon them. It’s also the time of year when everything starts to slow down and become more deliberate – in nature, of course, but in human society as well.

The deciduous trees paint the landscape with color and drop their leaves, preparing for a revitalizing winter’s rest. The animals are busy storing seeds and fruits and nuts away to keep them fed, or eating whatever they can now in preparation for a long hibernation. And people, even, start to live more deliberately, as the hustle and bustle of summer dies down and is slowly replaced with the contented joy of an extended holiday season.

In New England, the fall is an awesome time to get up-close-and-personal with your local agricultural scene. The farmers have been sweating away since February or March, working towards a bountiful harvest that, in many cases, is only now coming to term. The fruits of that harvest, along with the farms that grew them, are the cornerstone of many of my favorite fall activities. Let’s talk about a few that I think you’d like.

            Visit a farmers market. I’d love to know that you already buy most of your food as one of our areas many farmers markets. But if you don’t, or if you haven’t been in a while, now is a great time to stop by! The summer crops – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers and melons, garlic, and onions – are still in full swing; but it’s also the time when many nutritious late-season crops, like cabbage, broccoli, kale, winter squash of so many varieties, and heat-sensitive leafy greens make their appearance. The Woonsocket Thundermist market (Tuesdays 3-6pm) was buzzing with great people and great produce this week. Check out farmfresh.org to find a market near you, and make a point to go!

Visit a local farm. For many different reasons, now is a great time of year to pay a visit to one of your local farms. Many will have open houses or visiting hours, and it gives you the opportunity to shake the hands that feed you, enjoy the scenery as the fall color descends upon the farm, and more fully immerse yourself in the process of growing food. As a bonus, many farms in our area have farm stands where you can purchase produce that was picked that very morning. Farm Fresh RI’s website is a good source for information on most of the farms in your area.

Go apple and pumpkin picking. This is a more specific example of the above. I make it a point every year to go apple picking in a local orchard, and I often buy a couple of big pumpkins while I’m there. There’s nothing like plucking an apple (or 50 right) off the tree, or a pumpkin right from where it grew in the field. This type of activity is a winning situation, both for the farmer and you, her customer. It brings people out to the orchard, creating a market for the raw produce as well as value-added products like warm apple cider  (a treat for which I will gladly consume a little extra sugar!). And you get to make memories with your friends and family, enjoying the experience of apple picking on a crisp autumn afternoon, all while buying (literally) bushels of apples for lower prices than in the supermarket, because you’re taking the work out of picking. Two of my favorite orchards are Barden Family Orchard (Scituate) and Hill Orchards (Smithfield). And what do we do with all that local produce?

Cook seasonal foods! Apples and pumpkins are the distinctive flavors of fall, used in all many of recipes, both sweet and savory, alongside the customary palette of spices. I regularly make baked apples, winter squash bisque, fresh-pressed apple cider (and one that’s, shall we say, “aged” a little), thyme- and butter-sautéed winter squash, and apple and pumpkin pastries, of course. (Eating a paleo diet has made this a bit of a challenge, but you’d be surprised how many great recipes utilize coconut and almond flour, and more nutritious sweeteners like maple syrup and honey. I make do!).

Decorate your house. Not only are our local farms the place to get some great, healthy produce. They can also be your go-to source for traditional fall decorations – from wreathes and corn stalks, to straw bales and pumpkins for carving into jack-o-lanterns. The very idea of decorating for the fall season seems to be a byproduct of our agrarian roots, where the waste products of agriculture – corn stalks, straw, leaves, pinecones, and the like – could be used to create decorative art. How cool is that! As a plus, pretty much any decorative plant material can be composted or fed to your chickens as the fall color gives way to winter weather.

Enjoy a fall or Halloween attraction. This has got to be one of my favorite pastimes, and it’s become something of a yearly tradition with my friends. From family-oriented corn mazes and hayrides, to more sinister, haunted attractions, fall is the time when New England farms show their creativity as entertainers. These are another great excuse to make the trip out to a local farm – spend the day outside with your family or friends, enjoy some hot apple cider, and get scared senseless by zombies and clowns lurking in the woods. Halloween New England’s site (halloweennewengland.com) is a good place to start if you want to check out some of these attractions.

Fall is one of the best times of year to really get involved with your local, small farms. These types of activities provide us with out-of-doors, nature-based entertainment, unmatched by electronic device. They make us more aware of the seasons, and how those seasons affect agricultural production. And they bring an influx of revenue to our hard-working local farms, right as we approach the lower-productivity winter season. Enjoying these activities is a win for everyone, so let’s get out there this autumn and FALL in love with local agriculture!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 55 – Meet Me At The County Fair!

12 11 2016

(September 11, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Meet Me At The County Fair!

This past Monday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Woodstock County Fair, just over the border in Woodstock, Connecticut. I have only gone once before, a few years ago: if you know me or read my column regularly, you’re probably shocked to hear that. But with all of my hobbies, school, work, and the other stuff I get myself into, the time has just never been there in past years (recall, if you will, my tell-all exposé last month about my time-anxiety; do you see what I mean?).

But anyway, I am glad that I finally made the time and took the day to visit the fair. Every part of the experience – from my fellow fairgoers, to the animals and attractions, and even the drive there and back – really strengthened my zeal for the deliberate, almost primal agrarian lifestyle, which I believe we could all use a little more of in our lives. Today, I want to explore the value of these types of experiences, specifically in the context of the county fairs whose season we’ve happily just entered.

County fairs have been around for at least a few hundred years. They began as a fun way to show off the work of an area’s farmers to the public, and have since expanded to fulfill a much broader purpose. They’ve become a public celebration of harvest time, the time of year when nature gleefully yields her bounty, and people respond in kind. Even to this day, and even in developed areas, these celebrations have preserved their agrarian roots, by continuing to showcase the food, art, entertainment, culture, and community belonging to the local economy.

As I said earlier, every single part of that experience gave me those particular feelings of contentedness, happiness, and inward reflection, much like what my mind reserves for when I am in the woods or my garden without a phone or to-do list.
The drive down Rt. 102, through North Smithfield, Burrillville, and Glocester, and on Rt. 44 through to Putnam and Woodstock, was really beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever driven down that way, and I couldn’t believe that the bucolic atmosphere described in John Denver’s “Country Roads” existed just 10 minutes from my home.

And of course, there was the Woodstock Fair itself. I was immediately greeted by the just detectable scent of cow manure – a smell I’ve come to appreciate over the years – mixed with the rich aromas emanating from the food stands near the fair’s entrance.

I spent two hours or so wandering around the fair, loosely following the map they had given me but going wherever my legs and eyes (and sometimes stomach) took me. I really didn’t know or care what time it was, and looked at my phone only to take pictures of what I saw (which is the truest mark of how good a time I was having). And wow, was there a lot to see!

There were stands selling almost any kind of food you could ask for, most of it prepared by local restaurants and other organizations; in the center of the grounds was a huge stage, where the area’s bands and entertainers were filling the air with music; there were carnival rides, of course, and showcases of local artists and home goods; and, lest I forget my main reason for going to the fair, there were lots of prized farm animals and agricultural produce on display, including some really big pumpkins.

So why did I appreciate my trip to the fair so much? Well, for one, I experienced a lot of the same things and feelings that I do at Woonsocket’s annual Autumnfest. The only thing missing is the agricultural exhibits, though maybe that should change in the near future (I can name a few members of our City Council who would react very passionately to this idea!).

These county fairs – Autumnfest included – serve to bring us closer to the local, agrarian community in which our separate cities and towns are collectively nested.

On the one hand, I mean that quite literally: the trip to pretty much any county fair brings you through some of the most beautiful parts of your geographic area, through the country roads and rural townships where life is more deliberate and the air smells cleaner.

But I also mean it figuratively. County fairs do the important job of preserving our connection to the local economy and agrarian community that, despite being drowned out by the sounds, sights, and smells of urban and metropolitan areas, still underlies our very existence.

You’re the last people I need to say this to: we are intimately dependent on rural America. We all eat food, drink water, wear clothes, take shelter in buildings, and use energy; the raw materials for much of that comes from farms and mines and forests in agrarian communities, whether in our proverbial backyard or one 2000 miles away.

County fairs remind us of that. They keep alive the population’s interest in agriculture, in local artisans, in the local community. They connect us to our neighbors who grow food and make things, and remind us of the agricultural roots of our past (and hopefully, not-so-distant future).

The Woodstock County Fair gave me an appreciation for all of this, and I’m sad to say we’ll have to wait another year to go again. But there are plenty of amazing agricultural fairs in our area of Southern New England. Take a look at this list – http://www.newenglandexplorer.com/statefairsne.htm. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.